The Google Privacy Plot Thickens

If my last column -- titled "Could This Be Google's Privacy Moment?" -- confirmed anything, it was the basic assertion that Internet users are near-wholly apathetic when it comes to privacy.  Users just don't care, and Facebook and Google can have a direct pipe inside their brains, as long as they can play Farmville and also get an instant answer whenever they are met with a fleeting impulse to seek.  My opinion is based on completely anecdotal evidence of nearly 15 years of monitoring the Internet space for such issues, and the minimal number of comments and retweets on that column, compared to my average columns (though it had a nice run toward the front page of Digg).  On the MediaPost site, the article only received six "thumbs up - this article is insightful."  And five of those were mine.

But seriously, folks, this latest round of privacy wrangling has dumbfounded the likes of many a search pundit, myself included.  I mentioned in that last column that I always thought a single event of heightened data awareness would be what it took to get people's pants in a bunch.  About four years ago, I was at a conference manning the SEMPO booth with Gord Hotchkiss, and explained to him my theory that someone's privacy would be revealed via click and search stream, and this would kick off the user backlash.  I'm sure he would rather have been receiving a root canal at that point in my rant, but AOL released its search data not long after, and the New York Times was able to identify searchers by name through  that data alone.  But still no backlash. 

John Battelle has stated that the user backlash will happen when a murder associated with a search engine or a user's data occurs.  A burglar used Google Maps to stake out a victim, and killed her in the process.  Still no backlash. 



I'm not trying to instigate an uprising here, and if anything, apathy around privacy issues speaks more about this generation of users than it does of Google or other engines.  The real damage to privacy may just be that breaches in data only harm a small number of people, and that collateral damage is just a price paid by a small few.  Which is apparently fine until that "something bad" happens to you. 

Perhaps the most fascinating question in all of this is why everyone blindly gives away their data online, knowingly and unknowingly, when being asked to give away printed versions of the same data to physical persons would cause outrage.  Yet passive release of this same type of data still seems to be of no consequence or concern to most people. 

So the big news this week in the GoogleBalt Spy View debacle is that Connecticut is leading a probe of Google's Street View data collection, with 30 other states joining in.  Even Scotland Yard is on the case.  As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, various government entities are still pissed, as everyone learned that data like email addresses and passwords were among Google's bounty.  Stay tuned, because as advertised, this just may be Google's privacy moment.  Or not.

9 comments about "The Google Privacy Plot Thickens".
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  1. Sue Sparks from Rightscom, June 23, 2010 at 11:44 a.m.

    I think you have answered yourself about why people give their data away when you say 'as long as they can play Farmville' - it's the instantaneous nature of the reward for surrendering and the penalty for not doing so. However, there is definitely concern on Facebook whenever they are perceived to have overstepped the mark and there was a reaction to Buzz as well. But the problem is that so much of the data grab is less visible to the user, especially with Google.

  2. Phil Wescott from Wescott Consulting, June 23, 2010 at 11:46 a.m.

    This blissful lack of concern about online privacy may be generational. Older users may be wiser about the potential for / probability of misuse. I agree that it will take more egregious abuse of privacy to sensitize many more people about the danger. In the meantime, avoid FACEBOOK accounts whenever possible.

  3. Marjory Meechan from MediaWhiz Search, June 23, 2010 at 11:51 a.m.

    I think this is very interesting especially in light of Dave Harry's recent rant on a very similar topic: (I'm not trying to leave a link here - I love Dave's stuff but he doesn't hire me to spam for him. In any case it is a very interesting article that illustrates just what you are saying about people who should know better about the dangers of oversharing).

    Even so, I think that if the banks, government and others who are protecting my really important info were more vigilant, I wouldn't have to care so much about whether or not Yahoo Games, Facebook or other places that I play are.

  4. Renee Mcgivern from Spark Plug Consulting, June 23, 2010 at 11:52 a.m.

    People don't see or grasp how information is being used behind the scenes. They'd care if someone became intrusive, like suddenly getting a lot of phone calls from a car warranty telemarketer. Now they're ticked off! But even still, they don't spend time tracking down how the telemarketer got the phone number in the first place.

    They'd care if someone started soliciting their kids for sex. Now they'll track down the source!

    They'd care if someone got access to their bank account or started charging stuff on their credit card. They'd cancel accounts like crazy and call the police.

    All people can do is react. Being proactive requires too much time and knowledge. FB and other technologies are way too complicated for the average person; privacy settings and explanations are (intentionally) indecipherable. It's like trying to understand the inner workings of a car.

  5. Ruth Barrett from, June 23, 2010 at 11:53 a.m.

    Closing the barn door after the horse has left?
    Using social security numbers as ID. Asking for mom's maiden name here, there and everywhere. It may be that there is no such thing as privacy anymore. I would keep up the work, though, because some people are listening and taking action.

  6. Nelson Yuen from Stereotypical Mid Sized Services Corp., June 23, 2010 at 11:55 a.m.

    I think it's the flux of the "who you are" VS the "who you want to be" that's made the release of PII apathetic.

    Your online resume is polished with the most exacerbated details and emphasizes professional qualities perceived to be "most desired" by employers. A half naked image of yourself or a head-shot is done in the best light possible - with touches from photo editing software. Your personality traits are tastefully presented as a "polished image" of how unique or great you are compared to the person next to you.

    It's more a social issue. There's lots of elements - the pervasive nature of "institution as a whole" etc. I think is just one element.

    Question - how many "acts of institution" would we EXPECT to cause an uproar? Our complacency comes from where when it comes to Government VS Private Corporations?

    Just word salad.

  7. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 23, 2010 at 12:27 p.m.

    If one source has your info, every source has it. There is no escape. And this is going to be the sorriest thing greed has ever done to human kind when looking back in the future. When you give up privacy, you forfeit choice and humanity, not just flavor of the week.

  8. Jason Labaw from Bonsai Media Group, June 23, 2010 at 1:22 p.m.

    I can't help but read your post and draw parallels to BP and "The leak." There have been leaks before this one, BP had 800+ safety violations previous to this disaster, all of which were warning signs gone unheeded. These Privacy leaks are also warning signs and if the disaster in the gulf has taught us anything, it's that the American people will not care until the situation has reached disaster status. Good post. As a Web Developer/SEO I feel your pain, I preach the importance of Accessibility on deaf ears.

  9. Trevor Stafford from Red Canary, June 23, 2010 at 6:19 p.m.

    I chortle when I read this stuff. Online privacy? You surrendered your offline privacy long ago.

    You swipe loyalty/reward and credit cards in dozens of places per week, punch in your PIN numbers to bank machines, call OnStar to unlock your doors or disable your vehicle, walk past video cameras on the street and in businesses, drive past cell towers and under gps satellites, and generally go about your business pretending that nobody knows what you're doing or buying. Riiiiiight.

    So why all this fuss about online privacy?

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